“I have spent the day well just looking and looking. It is the same in art as in life. The deeper one penetrates, the broader grows the view.”
So wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Italian Journey, a book based on his diaries kept during his travels through Italy from 1786-88.
Much has changed in the ancient seat of the Roman Empire since then, but the Eternal City remains a destination spot for visitors from all over the world.
For Angus MacDonald, this was his first trip to Europe, and rather than spend the month he had to spare, jetting all over the Continent, or even the country, he chose to spend it (in a decidedly unfashionable), seaside town just a couple of hours by train, from Rome, where he stayed in a small hotel a few days a week, while exploring the alleyways and hidden courtyards off the beaten tourist track.
Although he did visit St. Peter’s, he remained steadfast in his decision to explore the city “of the people.”
MacDonald, who grew up in Marfa, Texas (before the arrival of Donald Judd and the later Hipster stamp of approval), is known for his impressionist studies that are inspired by his upbringing in the Big Bend region of Texas.
Growing up in Marfa, where his grandmother owned the old Marfa Hotel, he spent his teenage years as a cowboy working on ranches from Texas to Mexico. When the cast and crew of Giant stayed at the hotel, he befriended the young James Dean and spent many hours hanging out with him and others on the set, including Dennis Hopper.
After joining the Service, and a stint in NYC, where he spent time in Connecticut studying with Norman Rockwell, Angus, who began drawing as a boy, returned to Texas and went to work for his brother (who had forged a career in radio), as a D.J. who also moonlighted as an illustrator.
Through Dick Moder whom he’d met years earlier, on the set of Giant, he went on to have a lucrative career as a stuntman in Hollywood, but his desire to make art eventually led him back to Marfa, where he turned the top floor of his grandmother’s hotel, into a studio. Dick Moder’s son, Mike (part time Taos resident, Julia Roberts’ father-in-law), remains a close friend.
During his time painting in Marfa, he met his wife Wanda, and together they moved to Taos in the early 80’s. Soon after their arrival, Angus met the renowned Zen Buddhist monk, Kobun Chino Otagawa, and was ordained by him a few years later. His Zen practice continues to inform his work and his life.
His life in Taos has been spent quietly and productively; after showing in a few galleries over the years, including with Robert Parsons and Michael McCormick respectively, he opened his own gallery on Kit Carson Road, Reata Fine Art. His wife’s failing health along with the changing art market in Taos, caused him to close his doors a few years ago and to focus on online sales and commissions from his loyal collectors.
When Wanda passed away a little over a year ago, and once he had emerged from a lengthy period of grieving, Angus decided it was time for a new point of view, and began to plan his trip abroad.
“Thirty seven years is a long time to spend with someone,” he told me when we met for coffee last week.
Angus and I became friends when he hired me to write his beautifully illustrated book, Angus MacDonald: An American Artist, published in 2012.
I had not seen him in some time, so we had much catching up to do. Soon he was retracing his steps through the streets of Rome, describing the cobblestone alleyways he discovered while wandering around the city in search of a good meal!
“I rented a house on the coast,” he told me, “but except for a butcher shop, a couple of bars and a cafe where I could buy a pastry, there was nothing to eat in that town.”
“I was starving,” he laughed. “So I began taking the train to Rome.”
Clearly finding food was no problem, and from the photographs he took, it appears that neither was inspiration.
“I made only one painting while in Italy,” he told me. “But I took hundreds of photographs.”
“I found it very different from what I expected,” he said. “The European Union has homogenized everything – although it wasn’t tourist season, and when I first arrived, very few Americans were travelling – mostly the tourists were from England and Germany – everyone looked like us.” He sounded disappointed.
“Or the other way around?” I mused.
“I don’t know about that.” He replied.
“It felt uneasy over there,” he continued. “ It was as if I could feel the Winds of War blowing in,” he explained somewhat ominously.
Yet he’s eager to return in the not too distant future.
“I want to go to Verona.” He told me, smiling, “if only because it’s where Romeo and Juliet was set.”
Ever the romantic, in art as in life, the painting you see here, he gave away to a friend, but I have no doubt there will be many more, inspired by his Italian Journey, and all he saw and felt along the way. I left Angus and walked back to my car with the lyric from the classic Dylan song (When I Paint My Masterpiece), playing over and over in my head:
Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere…
For more information on Angus MacDonald and to see his work, please visit his site linked below.
Angus MacDonald’s work is also available here: saatchiart/amac
and here: artfinder/amac
All photographs taken in Italy by Angus MacDonald
Painting made in Italy by Angus MacDonald
Portrait of Angus, thanks to Angus MacDonald
Lyric from When I Paint My Masterpiece